Politics not reaching anywhere, nor does the SYL issue

The Congress and SAD are unrelenting in pinning down the AAP government on every issue. But on SYL, CM Mann loses no opportunity in accusing both parties for ‘anti-Punjab’ role they played during their respective rule in creating and complicating the issue, writes Raju William

Not a drop of water has flown through Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal, a stillborn water channel between the states of Punjab and Haryana, yet the politics over more than four-decade-old vexed issue is still alive. It originated during the Congress rule at the Centre. Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and its political ally for long, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) too cannot escape the blame of failing to find a political way out. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is a new  player on the political chessboard.

While Haryana has stuck to its stand that the construction of SYL must be completed by Punjab in compliance with the Supreme Court order, the AAP government led by Chief Minister Bhagwant Singh Mann has categorically said “the state does not have even a single drop of water to share with Haryana.” Its construction was suspended in 1990 during the wave of terrorism. Two top officials of the project and some workers had lost their lives.

“More than 78% of our 150 blocks are in extreme dark zone due to depletion of ground water table, so Punjab can’t afford to share its water with any other state,” said Mann while briefing the media about January 4, 2023 meeting with his Haryana counterpart Manohar Lal mediated by Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. This was the third inconclusive meeting between the chief ministers of both states in the wake of the Supreme Court (SC) decision on the construction of the SYL.

Even as the SAD, with its traditional farmers vote bank, has been making it an election issue comparatively more forcefully than its political competitors, this grand old Punjab-centric party faced the worst defeat in the Assembly elections in February 2022. It could win only three out of the total 117 seats. And the Congress fared no better. It could retain only 18 seats out of 77 it held in 2017 Assembly elections.

Punjab’s political equations have since 2022 changed from being historically bipolar with the AAP becoming a dominant third force with formation of its government with a thumping majority. With an eye on the next available electoral opportunity, be it Municipal Corporation elections due early this year or 2024 parliamentary elections, the Congress and the SAD are unrelenting in pinning down the AAP on every issue arising from its actions. The SYL issue is the prominent one. In this political slugfest, the AAP is not expected to take things lying down. It reacts with equal force, if not more, in condemning the alleged anti-Punjab role both parties have played during years of their rule in creating and complicating the issue.

“Former Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal had allowed survey of the canal to appease his friend and Haryana leader Devi Lal. Former Congress Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who was Member of Parliament at that time, had welcomed the then Prime Minister (late Mrs. Indira Gandhi) for ground breaking of this sinister move,” commented Mann after a recent meeting of both chief ministers. Captain Amarinder Singh is now a BJP leader.

Continuing his scathing political attack, Mann alleged, “These leaders have sown thorns before Punjab and its younger generations by indulging in this unpardonable crime. For the sake of their vested interests these selfish political leaders have prepared distress for the state.” In the same breath, he asserted the state government led by him would defend the interests of the state well before the apex court too.

Meanwhile, desperate to regain the lost political ground, the SAD is seen being more critical of the AAP leaders Mann and Arvind Kejriwal than the BJP-led Centre on the issue.  “As leader of the party (SAD) that has led historic Morchas to protect Punjab’s lifeline,  I warn you not to enter into any negotiations aimed at giving our river waters to any state in violation of the nationally and internationally accepted Riparian Principle,” said Sukhbir Singh Badal, former Deputy CM and president of his party.

Countering Mann’s argument of Punjab having no surplus water to share, Badal further commented, “Availability is of course an issue, but only if Punjab concedes that other states have a right over our river waters. This will be a dangerous concession   …by shifting the focus from Punjab’s rights on its river waters to its availability factor, the AAP government is deliberately confusing the issue to destroy the very foundations of Punjab’s case. All river water disputes across the country and even globally have been solved only as per the Riparian Principle. Why should an exception be made in Punjab’s case?”

For the Congress, it has become a political necessity to sound different from the AAP, the SAD and the BJP to maintain its identity as the main opposition party. For the purpose, it has to add political value, different from others, to what it says. The party wanted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to tell Haryana CM “to drop SYL demand at once.” Seeking the PM’s intervention, its Leader of Opposition, Partap Singh Bajwa said, “The PM had the golden opportunity to right many wrongs done against Punjab to deny the state its bonafide rights over its river waters.”

He lashed out at Mann for his way of handling the issue. “Instead of making absurd statements on SYL, Mann must present Punjab’s case with legal arguments.” His comment is being seen with reference to Mann having suggested Yamuna-Satluj-Link (YSL) as an alternative to SYL in the chief ministers’ meeting.

The ongoing controversy has had repercussions in Delhi too where the AAP national chief Kejriwal is the chief minister. Reacting to his statement, Haryana CM said that if Kejriwal has any formula to resolve the SYL issue, he should share the same with Mann who should share the same with Haryana whenever the next meeting is held. Also, if not with us, then Kejriwal can also share the same formula with the SC. Notably, incharge of the AAP in Haryana too had batted for SYL in his state’s interest in much the same way incumbent Punjab BJP president did in the favour of his state.

The Congress or the SAD with its ally, the BJP, have been in power in Punjab, the Centre and simultaneously in Haryana too at different points of time. Still, an amicable solution remained elusive. In 1976 during the Emergency period, the Congress government at the Centre allegedly misused powers under section 78 of the States Re-organisation Act, 1966. A notification was issued giving 3.50 MAF water to Haryana and 0.20 MAF water to Delhi from the Punjab’s share of 7.20 MAF. “A careful study of the notification shows that this arbitrary decision was taken in complete disregard to law, justice, facts and Riparian principles,” commented Kahan Singh Pannu, former IAS officer who has served as Secretary, Agriculture Department, Punjab.

Parkash Singh Badal government had, in 1977, challenged this notification in the SC but his government fell in 1980. Surprisingly, the subsequent Congress government in Punjab headed by the chief minister Darbara Singh withdrew this case at the behest of the then Congress government at the Centre. After this, decision to dig 214 kilometre long SYL was taken and its foundation laid by Mrs. Gandhi in 1982 at village Kapoori in Patiala district.